‘Burka’ and Intellectual Terrorism

March 22, 2010

By Awais Masood

In an article published in the January 2009 edition of Newsline, prominent Pakistani academic, scientist and social activist Pervez Hoodbhoy outlined the root causes of religious extremism in Pakistan and while doing so pointed out towards deliberate attempts of imposing an Arab culture upon the pluralistic South Asian traditions upheld by the people of Pakistan. [1]

These attempts include the import of puritanical Wahabi strand of Islam from Arabia under state patronage. The fundamentalist and puritanical Wahabism has engulfed the lower middle and urban middle class of Pakistan and is on its way to completely change the cultural outlook of this region. One of the examples includes ‘abaya’ (a long robe worn by Arabic women) which was an unknown word in Urdu (and an equally unknown entity in local culture) but has now become a common spectacle in educational institutes.

As’ad AbuKhalil

Surely, such articles do not go down well with those belonging to conservative religious right and adherents of political Islam as they seeks establishment of a theocratic state in Pakistan and for them subjugation and oppression of women remains a part of their faith. One rightly expects severe criticism from the religious right as the assertion of  their political values gets challenged.  Strangely, criticism also came from another unlikely corner.  As’ad AbuKhalil, a California State University professor  of political science, posted the following excerpt from Hoodbhoy’s article at his blog ‘The Angry Arab News Service’:

“The Saudi-isation of a once-vibrant Pakistani culture continues at a relentless pace. The drive to segregate is now also being found among educated women. Vigorous proselytisers carrying this message, such as Mrs Farhat Hashmi, have been catapulted to the heights of fame and fortune. Their success is evident. Two decades back, the fully veiled student was a rarity on Pakistani university and college campuses. The abaya was an unknown word in Urdu. Today, some shops across the country specialise in abayas. At colleges and universities across Pakistan, the female student is seeking the anonymity of the burqa. And in some parts of the country she seems to outnumber her sisters who still “dare” to show their faces. I have observed the veil profoundly affect habits and attitudes. Many of my veiled female students have largely become silent note-takers, are increasingly timid and seem less inclined to ask questions or take part in discussions. They lack the confidence of a young university student.”

AbuKhalil condemned Hoodbhoy’s criticism of burka as ‘vulgar Western Orientalism’ and commented as:

“That is such a wild generalization. This is like suggesting that dress–in whatever shape–can affect the level of confidence of a woman. This comes from the cliches of vulgar Western orientalism. I can attest that during my brief speaking tour in Islamabad I found that the burka in no way make female students lacking in self-confidence. As I reported at the time, I found that it was my problem and not their problem (I was the one who felt uncomfortable discussing ideas with a woman whose eyes I could not see). ” [2]

Before I discuss Mr. AbuKhalil’s point, there is more to quote from recent news stories which relates to this issue. On March 18, 2010, The News published a story with the title ‘Hoodbhoy sees veiled students bar to effective communication’ which stated Hoodbhoy’s comments ‘ that the culture of effective communication was diminishing in universities as the number of female students hiding their faces with Burqa (veil) were rapidly increasing compared to the trends that prevailed during the decade of 60s and 70s.’ According to the story, the comments led to a heated debate in which a professor teaching at Islamic university claimed that he girls wearing hijab were more brilliant as compared to male students. Hoodbhoy replied with the comments that ‘he was worried of this growing trend as he knew some teachers at the university level who were openly advising that those female students were not allowed to enter their classrooms who did not observe Burqa.’ [3]

They day this news story was published, a well known Pakistani blogger, quoting this story, wrote at his blog:

“what makes me wonder, that this forward thinking liberal philosopher must have better appreciation for respecting the right of every individuals, simply the right to express himself/herself on how he/she may dress should ride well with at least this educator, be it tight fitting jeans or a typical top-to-bottom veil with bare minimal opening for the eyes. These women come to the university for education and definitely not to be ogled at by their teachers and fellow students on how they dress.

So when Dr. Hoodbhoy uses the pretext of “hindering the culture of effective communication” makes me want to give the learned gentleman a deserved a solid whack on the knuckles.” [4]

Let me discuss the points raised by these gentlemen in the remaining part of this article

On Orientalism

AbuKhalil declares Hoodbhoy’s comments as coming from ‘clichés of vulgar Western Orientalism’. I wonder if the learned professor has himself read Edward Said’s remarkable and influential work because his next lines actually spill out what Said so eloquently pointed and criticized. AbuKhalil actually claims that his brief presence in Islamabad and interaction with students was enough for him to make generalizations about Pakistani culture and religious traditions, create stereotypes, pass judgements and refute any attempt to point out towards the ills that plague Pakistani society. Is it not true that  Said’s work was about similar stereotypes and generalizations that Western Orientalists generated when they came in contact with those living in East . These were the stereotypes that led them to the conclusions that Orientals were degenerate, inferior and backward and hence deserved to be subjugated and ruled!

Unlike AbuKhalil, some of the Orientalists spent considerable time with the ‘natives’ in order to ‘study’ them. One of the examples quoted in Said’s work is of  Edward William Lane whose work ‘, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), was the self-conscious result of a series of works and of two periods of residence in Egypt (1825–1828 and 1833–1835).’ [5].

Lane was not just another visitor or observer  as he ‘was able to submerge himself amongst the natives, to live as they did, to conform to their habits, and “to escape exciting, in strangers, any suspicion of . . . being a person who had no right to intrude among them.” ‘.[5]

It was indeed Said’s remarkable critique of texts by Orientalists such as Lane which exposed the inherent biases and prejudices present in their works which claimed authority and objectivity. I would recommend everyone to read this book in order to understand how the West has looked down at the Orient in specific and East in general in previous centuries.

Unfortunately, AbuKhalil’s comments do not even offer such a claim of authority or objectivity. He spent a few hours or days in Islamabad, delivered a few lectures in the urban environment of Pakistani capital, interacted with students mainly belonging to the urban middle class of Pakistan and was able to create generalizations which he could apply to population of more than 160 million, divided into multitudes of classes, ethnicities, and beliefs. One can assert that his comments were also an example of vulgar Orientalism and were meant to distract attention from the valid arguments that it is the state patronage of Arab Wahabism that is responsible for religious extremism and fundamentalism in Pakistan. One wonders if it’s the hatred of everything West or some sort of latent Arab tribalism that led Prof. AbuKhalil to such a response.

Interestingly, declaring someone as an Orientalist has become a favourite hobby of the apologists of religious extremism and fundamentalism. Anybody who opposes these ideologues is labelled as an Orientalist or Brown Sahab and hence a traitor to one’s own people. The binary world view held by these people make them believe that the world is divided into two poles; Imperialist USA along with its allies and the Taliban along with their supporters who oppose USA. Therefore anybody who opposes Taliban or Muslim fundamentalists is bound to be an ally of USA and a native-orientalist. Prof. AbuKhalil suffer from this syndrome as evident from his comments and so does Prof. Shahid Alam from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachussetts. [6]

It is also true that Edwards Said’s work has been used by fundamentalists and their supporters, something that Said himself disproved of as he considered his book as a work of secular literary and humanist critique. In his 1995 foreword to Orientalism, Said  stated,

“Yet Orientalism has in fact been read and written about in the Arab world as a systematic defense of Islam and the Arabs, even though I say explicitly that I have no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient or Islam really are.” [5]

Said states further,

“Orientalism can only be read as a defense of Islam by suppressing half of my argument, in which I say (as I do in a subsequent book, Covering Islam) that even the primitive community we belong to natally is not im-mune from the interpretive contest, and that what appears in the West to be the emergence, return to, or resurgence of Islam is in fact a struggle in Islamic societies over the definition of Islam. No one person, authority, or institution has total control over that definition; hence, of course, the contest. Fundamentalism’s epistemological mistake is to think that “fundamentals” are ahistorical categories, not subject to and therefore outside the critical scrutiny of true believers, who are supposed to accept them on faith. To the adherents of a restored or revived version of early Islam, Orientalists are considered (like Salman Rushdie) to be dangerous because they tamper with that version, cast doubt on it, show it to be fraudulent and non-divine. To them, therefore, the virtues of my book were that it pointed out the malicious dangers of the Orientalists and somehow prised Islam from their clutches.

Now this is hardly what I saw myself doing, but the view persists anyway.” [5]

If AbuKhalil’s assertion is true and burka or veil is indeed a part of Pakistani culture- criticism of which would lead one to be regarded as an Orientalist – then I wonder what Prof. Khalil would make of the following verses from Heer Waris Shah, perhaps the most import piece of Punjabi literature written by Waris Shah, a sixteenth century Punjabi sufi poet:

There are so many evils in this veil; lets burn this veil;
Veil hides the glamour of beauty, the veiled woman gets robbed of everything;
Veil destroys lovers, do not imprison meena (bird) in a cage;
You will only see this world completely when you will remove this veil;
Veil blinds even those with proper vision, O, married women please remove this veil;
Waris Shah, burying pearls (of beauty)is like burning flowers in fire. [7]

I wonder if our learned professor AbuKhalil would consider Waris Shah as an Orientalist working on an agenda to legitimize the future British colonial rule in India!

I am sure that Mr. AbuKhalil, during his brief stay in Pakistan, never took out time to go deeper into the rural areas of Punjab or Sindh where they would have found female peasants working alongside men in fields. None of them wears burka as it is not practical to work in fields while being draped in a dark head-to-toe dress. Mr. AbuKhalil would also be unaware of women, in the far off regions of Balochistan and Pakhtunkhawa and the deserts of Cholistan and Thar, who daily travel several kilometers to bring fresh water supplies for their families. How many of them do and can actually wear burka is a question that our learned professor must ask himself as these poor and impoverished women constitute a large portion of the population of this poor third world country.

Burka as a Dress

Both AbuKhalil and the Pakistani assert speak in defence of burka by declaring it as a ‘dress’ that a woman ‘chooses’ to wear. Seriously, is burka just another ‘dress’?  Why is it then specific to women? We do see both men and women wearing similar dresses. Both men and women choose to wear Shalwar Kameez, jeans, trousers, shirts etc. but we do not see a man wearing a shuttle cock burka as a fashion statement or as a dress selected out of ‘choice‘. Why not Mr. AbuKhalil and the Pakistani blogger who are so keen to defend a woman’s right to wear a burka, start wearing burkas as an act of solidarity towards the ‘freedom’ of Pakistani women?

What is the choice that these people speak about? The choice when a woman is told that it is obligatory to cover her face or else she would burn in hell fire? Or the choice when a woman is forced to believe that her existence is a source of chaos and anarchy and she must be covered in order to protect the order of the society? Or the choice when she is made to believe that she needs protection and the only protection that could be offered is by hiding her from the eyes of the world? Or perhaps the choice when six years old girls are made to wear full body hijabs at the highly prolific Islamic schools?

Perhaps both the writers have not seen the emotionally exploitative propaganda videos, making rounds on social networking websites, in which Satan (with his red horns and protruding teeth)is shown tempting a woman not to wear hijab and when falls into despair when she does not respond to her temptations. These videos have either been created by organizations working out of Arab states or have been financed by such organizations. Is that the choice and ‘free will’ that Pakistani women in specific and Muslim women in general have when they ‘choose’ to wear burkas under petro-dollars sponsored propaganda that makes them believe that unless they wear hijab (in a very specific Arabic style), they will remain inferior to their Arab sisters?

On Women’s Protection

This argument in favour of burka comes pouring out of  apologists whenever burka is criticized. What exactly is the protection that these men talk about? Why exactly a woman needs to be protected? Why should she cover herself up so that she is not ogled in the streets or raped or harassed? Why not the men who stare, grope and harass women must be apprehended instead?

Why not the men who are robbed at gun point while using ATM machines or whose mobile phones are snatched while walking down a deserted street are protected using an extrapolation of argument in defence of Hijab and burka? Why not such men are barred from going out of their homes for their own protection? Do courts give relaxations to robbers when they find out that the man who was robbed, was walking alone in a dark street while his purse remained half exposed from his pockets? If not then why is that same argument applied by the burka apologists to justify rapes and harassment on the basis of woman’s dress?

Te reality is that men, stare, grope and harass women because they consider themselves dominant. The patriarchal society makes them consider women as objects of domination and source of gratification. Such attitudes are inherent in a culture that treats women as pieces of property that require protection from strangers and outsiders.

I would go on to assert that the societies that segregate women under the pretence of protection actually sow the seeds of harassment of women. When a man is turned into a saviour, protector and guardian of his mother, daughters, sisters and wife, these women are at once turned into scared items of property, a relation internalized by the man. While at the same time it results into, him considering all the women as similar objects. Since there is no sanctity attached to the ’other’ women out there, the natural result of such an arrangement is that the man considers himself dominant upon all the women and hence able to ’use’ those women for his gratification.

That is what the religious apologists and fundamentalists ignore while singing in chorus the benefits of purdah and veil. At the same time, people like Prof. AbuKhalil and the Pakistani blogger in question, start defending the burka and veil as symbols of freedom while ignoring the real problems that are faced by the women that is patriarchy and male domination. Instead of advising men to reconsider their behaviour and their internalized sense of superiority, these intellectual terrorists, instead, rationalize extreme oppression of women by turning them into objects hidden from foot to toe, only to be seen and ‘used’ by their rightful owners sanctified by the whole social order.

So do women need protection? Indeed women need and deserve protection as any citizen of a modern state is guaranteed protection. There is no harm in guaranteeing extra measure for the protection of women in societies which are highly patriarchal is nature. Women do need protection from sexual harassment by enacting laws that guarantee that anybody indulging in such an act will spend a considerable time of his life in prison. Women do need protection by laws which guarantee that anybody who is involved in violence against women received strict punishment. There could be so many ways in which a state can ensure protection of women, by punishing those who violate the freedom of women, rather than punishing the victims of this oppression with cages known as burka.

Burka a part of Pakistani Culture?

As I have discussed above, burka had never been adopted by a significant part of Pakistani population which remains impoverished and rural. As Hamza Alavi points out,

‘women have always had an active role in agricultural production in weeding, harvesting and threshing of crops, and other operations. It is their duty to cut fodder and to look after farm animals. Accordingly these women enjoy freedom of movement and are not confined behind purdah.’ [8]

It was only after the Green Revolution of the 1970s that many well to do peasants withdrew women from labour work and confined them to the house hold under purdah. Alavi also points out that during the course of research in Punjab villages, he and his wife found out :

“that far from rejoicing in this partial relief from the burden of work, the women resented this change. Many of them described their new situation to my wife as the equivalent of being locked up in a prison”. [8]

Even today, if one travels away from urban capitals for a few hours, one can see rural women working in fields dressed in conventional dresses without covering their faces. Burka is more related to the urban or semi urban middle and lowe middle class families while ‘abaya’ remains an ugly symbol of marriage between urban middle class consumerism and religion (Wahabism) and is found mainly in urban capitals of the city.

Polemic under Burka

The way, this issue was raised by the Pakistani blogger was queer in its own regard. He jumped up against Hoodbhoy’s comments regarding them as an attack on women’s freedom even when the comments were more of the nature of being a social and cultural commentary. One cannot find in those comments of a hint that Hoodbhoy wants to ban Burka inside universities. The blogger, on the other hand completely missed out (or perhaps deliberately skipped ) the portion of the story  where Hoodbhoy raised his concerns against university teachers who were ‘forcing’ their female students to wear burkas. Such a profound display of hypocrisy from the blogger is extremely disturbing. On one side he is trying to be a champion of women’s freedom by starting a social media trial of anybody who criticizes burka but on the other hand he has no issue with professors forcing their students and hence curbing their basic freedom of choosing a dress.

For any freedom loving person, the allegations that some professors force female students to wear veil , would have come out to be as a serious news and a matter of grave concern but the in this case, the blogger was more interested in defaming Pervez Hoodbhoy. The whole articles comes out more as a deliberate polemic against Hoodbhoy rather than an honest attempt to discuss women’s rights. It is such a disgusting display of hypocrisy when the writer claims that he wants to retaliate against Pervez Hoodbhoy with a ‘solid whack on the knucles’ but cannot even spend a little time in condemning those fascists who force women to wear burkas.

So do we support Burka Bans?

It is another remarkable display of lack of imagination when people assume that anybody who criticizes burka is a supporter of bans on burkas and hence would like to force women to remove veils. Why would anybody, who disagrees with the idea of veil because it violates basic freedom of women as human being, would invade into a woman’s personal freedom and use state force to remove her veil.

The people who make such assumptions have not been able to realize that the world is not divided into Islamists and Islamophobes. A rational and academic criticism does not means that a person is arguing in favour of using force neither does it make that person a fascist or an extremist. Dialogue, discourse and criticism are ways to point out social evils, the solutions that can help in eradicating those evils and to raise the general level of consciousness in the society regarding the presence of evils and problems which had previously been tolerated as norms but are actually oppressive and exploitative in nature.

I do realize that enforced modernity could and has led towards religious fundamentalism in past. As Karen Armstrong rightly point out “In Iran, the shahs used to make their soldiers go through the streets with bayonets, taking the women’s veils off and tearing them to pieces in front of them. These modernizers wanted their countries to look modern. Never mind hat the vast majority of the population, because of the rapid pace of the modernization process, had no understanding of modern institutions or modern ideals. “ [9]

There is no need to point out that such modernizing measures violate fundamental human rights. The act of forcefully removing veil from a woman would be as much traumatic as forcing her to take veil. Such acts are condemnable and no freedom loving person would ever own them. On the other hand, I also believe that  proper and continuous criticism of social evils (and intellectual terrorism from the apologists of religious extremism and fundamentalism) is one of the most important duties of an intellectual. Therefore, I call upon all freedom loving people to condemn the dehumanizing practice of veil while at the same time oppose the hysterical Islamophobia that has engulfed a large part of the world.


1. Pervez Hoodbhoy, The Saudi-isation of Pakistan, Newline, January 2009

2. As’ad AbuKhalil, Saudization of Pakistan: and the Pakistanization of Western stereotypes

3. Hoodbhoy sees veiled students bar to effective communication, The News, March 18, 2010

4. Awab Alvi, Pervaiz Hoodbhoy against Burqas in Universities?

5. Edward Said, Orientalism, Penguin Books, 2003

6 Pervez Hoodbhoy, The Confessions of a Groveling Pakistani Native Orientalist, Counter Punch, December 14, 2009

7. Heer Waris Shah, Stanza 397, (Punjabi to English translation by the author)

8. Hamza Alavi, Pakistani Women in a Changing Society

9. Fundamentalism and the Modern World, A dialogue with Karen Armstrong, Susannah Heschel, Jim Wallis, and Feisal Abdul Rauf, Sojourners Magazine, March-April 2002

Published at http://awaismasood.wordpress.com

3 Responses to “‘Burka’ and Intellectual Terrorism”

  1. Megan S Mills Says:

    Most interesting. One fine day, scholars and activists given to preaching Said will realise that he knew F-all about South Asia. Indeed, the first edition of “Orientalism” includes a string of falsehoods, as Said budges from the Middle East, applying the same model to a different civilisation. Much depends on which strange old Portuguese, Dutch, French or Brit stuff one reads. Many early Euros were far more apt to ‘go native’ than to take the attitude explained by Said.

  2. Barooq Says:

    Hai, hai… Shame on you 🙂
    you destroyed my 6 page article, by writing everything I wanted to write, better than I could have ever written.
    You even quoted Heer, which was the center piece of what I wanted to write…

    All in all, this was wonderful
    keep up the good work.

    Any chance you’d accept anonymous guest articles?

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